- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 2, 2008

BUCHAREST, ROMANIA President Bush today said that NATO is no longer a body focused on countering Russia, in a speech intended to soften Russian resistance to the alliance’s expansion and to a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

NATO looks likely to state their support tomorrow at this summit for the missile defense system, and the alliances secretary-general made a statement of unequivocal support for inviting two former Soviet blocs into NATOs membership process.

Mr. Bush said he and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer “discussed the need for a comprehensive missile defense regime out of NATO, and it looks like to me that the ingredients are coming together where that could be a distinct possibility.”

Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said he was optimistic that 26 NATO member countries would “take a clear position on missile defense.”

On the question of a membership action plan (MAP) for former Soviet satellites Ukraine and Georgia, Mr. de Hoop Scheffer left no question about his support for issuing such an invitation, which has been strongly opposed by Russia.

“I think this can never be a question of ‘whether,’ ” Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said. “If these nations fulfill the criteria, and if they want to enter … through NATO’s open door, I think that door should be open.”

In his speech this morning, Mr. Bush argued that the fifty-nine-year-old coalition has moved away from its anti-Soviet roots and no longer represents a threat to Russia.

“See, NATO is no longer a static alliance focused on defending Europe from a Soviet tank invasion,” Mr. Bush said. “It is now an expeditionary alliance that is sending its forces across the world to help secure a future of freedom and peace for millions.”

Mr. Bush told the audience of a few hundred people inside the historic National Bank of Savings that “the Cold War is over.”

“Russia is not our enemy,” he said. “I believe we can build strong relations with Russia, and a strong NATO alliance, at the same time.”

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, 10 states that were members of the Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc have joined NATO, and Mr. Bush has pressed during his seven years in office for a missile defense system based in two of those countries: Poland and the Czech Republic.

Russia has viewed the missile defense system as a provocation and the Bush administration has labored to convince the Kremlin that the idea is to defend against attacks from Middle Eastern countries such as Iran.

Public comments recently by top French and German officials opposing the invitation of Ukraine and Georgia indicate that the Russians have been successful in driving a wedge into the U.S.-Transatlantic relationship. NATO spokesman James Appathurai says after NATO leaders met for dinner that he does not expect Georgia or Ukraine to receive a membership action plan at this summit, according to Associated Press reports. But Mr. Bush and top White House officials yesterday did not back down from saying they would push over the next few days against a Russian veto. “The last time we checked, Russia didn’t get a vote. And this is a NATO discussion,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino. At the same time, Mr. Bush is preparing for talks with Mr. Putin this weekend in Russia that U.S. officials say may yield a breakthrough on missile defense, which has been a bone of contention since the two leaders first meeting in 2001. “The Russians are probably never going to like missile defense. But I think the assurances that we have provided and the mechanisms that we have proposed give them assurance that it is not aimed at them,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said yesterday. Mr. Putin is expected to speak to a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council here on Friday. His hand-picked successor, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, is not scheduled to attend the summit, a Kremlin spokesman said this week. Mr. Bush will meet with Mr. Medvedev for the first time, and Mr. Putin for the last time as head of state, on Sunday in the Russian resort town of Sochi. “It’s a good chance for me to sit down and have yet another heart-to-heart with [Mr. Putin] I don’t mind a good, frank discussion with President Putin. He doesn’t mind telling me what’s on his mind either. We’ve had seven years working together, a chance to have some pretty candid exchanges,” Mr. Bush said. Mr. Bush said he would thank Mr. Putin “for being candid with me.” Mr. Bush met today with Romanian President Traian Basescu before his meeting with Mr. de Hoop Scheffer, and then attended a working dinner with all 26 NATO heads of state tonight. During a press conference with Mr. Basescu at the one-time summer home of Romanias Cold War dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, Mr. Bush said that NATO members need to “shoulder the burden necessary to succeed” in Afghanistan. France is expected to commit 1,000 additional troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and Britain and Poland are also expected to pledge more troops. Some European countries have refused to send more soldiers or to position them in areas with heavy fighting in the south and east. “We fully understand the politics that prohibit some nations from contributing, but nations need to take this mission seriously because it’s in our mutual interests,” Mr. Bush said.

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